It takes but a second for Travis Sheridan to recount a few favorite memories from Venture Café St. Louis.
There was the time a bio-scientist tracked down Sheridan in the hallway to excitedly report how he’d spent 45 minutes discussing something entirely outside his field — visual storytelling — with a filmmaker he met at Venture Café. There was the time, too, that a college professor of sociology took advantage of Venture Café’s networking to find a mentor who helped her transition into a new career. And there is the couple who met at Venture Café and are now engaged to marry.
This Thursday — October 6 — promises to make for another memorable moment at Venture Café St. Louis as the organization hosts its 100th weekly gathering of innovators, techies and thought leaders. Since launching in St. Louis in the fall of 2014, Venture Café’s Thursday networking events (held at 4240 Duncan Avenue on the Cortex campus) have drawn more than 45,000 attendees, curated more than 1,000 learning sessions and served up innumerable glasses of beer and wine — all free of charge.
Now the man responsible for Venture Café St. Louis’ success has been tapped to expand the organization into other markets. Sheridan, executive director of Venture Café St. Louis, will step down from his role at the end of the year to lead Venture Café Global Institute (VCGI), which will move to St. Louis from its Boston headquarters.
Sheridan says plans already underway to open chapters in Philadelphia, Providence (Rhode Island), Tokyo and Warsaw (Poland). St. Louis was the organization’s first expansion city and is today often showcased as a model chapter for other cities wanting to launch a Venture Café .
“St. Louis had to prove what a decentralized Venture Café would look like,” says Sheridan. “We’re not in the traditional startup ecosystem that exists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, [where Venture Café was originally launched], but we got immediate buy in from incubators here — including Arch Grants, T-Rex, Cortex and innovation communities in the county.”
Sheridan says that Venture Café St. Louis also realized it had to be more than just a place for entrepreneurs to network. It also had to focus on social innovation.
“We opened in the wake of Michael Brown being killed and that shifted our area of focus,” says Sheridan. “We had to broaden what we offer. We’ve found that resonates with other communities, too. There is a lot of social inequity in the world and it needs innovative solutions. The old solutions aren’t working.”
In addition to its weekly Thursday gatherings, Venture Café St. Louis also offers a Youth Bootcamp for middle- and high-school students and a fellowship program for educators. As is the case with its weekly gatherings, most all of Venture Café’s programming is free.
“We operate on the NPR model,” says Sheridan of the non-profit Venture Café. “We don’t charge for our programming and our gatherings for a reason. We want to be open and inclusive and encourage participation. That is why individual contributions are so critical to our success.”
Check out the Venture Café St. Louis calendar for all that’s on tap at this week’s 100th gathering. And if you think you have what it takes to step into Travis Sheridan’s shoes, Venture Café St. Louis is hiring for a new executive director.